Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity

Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Oxford University Press 1999, xii 395, ISBN 0-19-512505-3 (pbk.) Review originally published in the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History Newsletter 14(2) 2000
(n.b.: This review is of the first edition. Williams has published a second edition, which I have not read.)
The tension between scholars who apply Fouceault's constructionist theory to the study of Roman sexuality and more 'essentialist' scholars who oppose or modify such views has been the driving force behind extensive research in this area in the Nineties. The 'essentialist' label has not been helpful, since it applies indiscriminately both to progressive scholars aware of cultural relativism who challenge constructionist views and to conservative classicists who preceded Fouceault or have not concerned themselves with the constructionist critique. (1)

Williams holds a fairly strong constructionist view. His title is ironic. Strictly speaking, he does not believe that 'homosexuality' existed in the Roman mind. The Roman sexual paradigm was relatively indifferent to sexual orientation, and based instead on dichotomies of dominance vs. submission, free vs. slave, and active vs. passive roles: Essentially, a Roman man could use a male or female 'bottom', as long as he was always the 'top'. Williams supports this position with an impressively erudite analysis of the relevant Latin concepts (stuprum, pathicus, etc.) not only in the commonly used sources which have become familiar to readers in this area (such as Juvenal and Martial), but in others new to the discussion. He repeatedly demonstrates the Romans' focus on active/passive, and their indifference to male/female, categorizations. The range of material examined and the quality of the analysis make interesting reading and an indispensable contribution to the subject.
Williams' thorough, unrelenting demonstration of the active/passive paradigm and its indifference to female/male distinctions is a critical step in clearing away modern preconceptions and understanding Roman attitudes and values on their own terms. His broom effectively sweeps aside modern assumptions projected by progressive 'essentialists' like Taylor(2)- who identifies the cult of Cybele as a gay subculture, but whose own comparison of Cybele's devotees with Indian hijras shows that these priests were not essentially same-sex oriented so much as transgender individuals- as well as by conservative classicists, who casually apply to Romans even such culturally laden expressions as "overt homosexual practise".(3)

There are positive contributions as well. Williams shows how the Romans assumed that a man would as likely be attracted to a boy as to a female, and many of the moral and legal strictures cited in the past as suppressing 'homosexuality' were instead aimed at protecting the dominant (i.e., non-passive) status of freeborn males. And he offers a perceptive analysis of Priapus, a characteristically Roman minor deity armed with a major erection ready to penetrate any orifice, as a popular exemplar of the established universal top-man paradigm.

Of course, like any correction, Williams' goes too far.

Perhaps most annoying for historians is his insistence that there was no diachronic change in Roman sexual values from 200 BCE to 200 CE. Although attitudes toward the norms may have shifted, he argues, the norms did not change.

But the normative sexual paradigms which modern theorists can deduce from the ranting of moralists have to be 'fleshed out' with social realities to achieve a sound historical understanding. Lilja (4) established change even in the Republican period, as Rome grew into a sophisticated urban culture. With the Principate, which sacrificed legitimacy for stability, Rome became a cosmopolitan metropolis in which foreign communities such as Asians and Greeks exerted significant influence. The evidence of altered social mores in authors like Martial, Juvenal, and Seneca, the previously unprecedented repressive legislation, and the surprisingly tolerant attitudes of Petronius and Statius are all indicative of a growing malaise with the Priapic paradigm which merits further study.

In fact, my reservations regarding Williams' insistence on the normative paradigm are best illustrated by his presentation of Priapus as an identification model for Roman men. Priapus was a comic figure, ugly, and almost always unsuccessful in his sexual aggressions. He does embody the Roman phallocentric paradigm very nicely. But no intelligent, adult Roman male could have wished to identify with him.
Indeed, Williams' broom brushes past the main objective of Fouceault's own efforts- viz., understanding the role of sex in power and domination-- when he sweeps aside Richlin's comparison of the loathing vented by the Roman moralists on passive men with modern homophobia(5. Granted, the thrust of the Romans' phobia was directed at a man being submissive rather than at a man having sex with another man. However, just like modern homophobia, it served as a kind of 'rear-guard' defense for an oppressive paradigm of masculinity. As such, it targeted traitors to the norm, men who should have been members of the dominant sexual category, but who sacrificed that status; and it inflicted vindictive sanctions. Finally, it betrayed the insecurity of the dominant group by imposing a permanent loss of status even for a single deviant act, regardless of whether or not the individual was assumed to have a lasting preference for his deviant behaviour.

Maud Gleason(6)has shown how insecure the ancients were about their masculinity. She argues that they were especially sensitive because they regarded males and females as innately bisexual and masculinity as an achieved, rather than an innate status. This she regards as differing from our society's assumptions, but I suppose she was never a Boy Scout.

If, as many theorists believe, homophobia is the more basic force which created the social category 'homosexual' in the nineteenth century, then perhaps we should not be asking whether there were homosexuals in Rome, but whether there was something essentially akin to homophobia, and what role it played in the dynamics of power. Although Williams does not draw all of the inferences in this connection, the implications of the information which he presents are fertile.

1. Perhaps the most important progressive critic of constructionism writing specifically on Roman sexuality is Amy Richlin. A concise presentation of her view and its position in the controversy may be found in her article "Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men" (1993) in the Journal of the History of Sexuality 3: 523-573. The title responds to a collection of constructionist articles edited by David M. Halperin, John J. Winkler, and Froma I. Zeitlin, Before Sexuality: Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World (Princeton 1990). More recently, a collection of papers has been issued on Roman Sexualities by Judith P. Hallett and Marylin Skinner (Princeton 1997).

2. Rabun Taylor, "Two Pathic Subcultures in Ancient Rome", Journal of the History of Sexuality 319-371.

3. Elaine Fantham, "Stuprum: Public Attitudes and Penalties for Sexual Offences in Republican Rome", Echoes du Monde Classique/Classical Views 35 (1991), 267-291 (p. 279).

4. Saara Lilja, Homosexuality in Republican and Augustan Rome, Helsinki 1983.

5. op. cit. (above, Footnote 1).

6. Maud Gleason, "The Semiotics of Gender: Physiognomy and Self-Fashioning in the Second Century CE", p. 389-415 in Before Sexuality... (above, Footnote 1).
7 (1997)

The Age of Marriage in Ancient Rome

Review by James Jope published in Italian Quarterly winter/spring 2006

Arnold A. Lelis, William A. Percy, and Beert C. Verstraete, The Age of Marriage in Ancient Rome. Studies in Classics vol. 26, Edwin Mellen Press, 2003

Richard P. Saller and Brent Shaw have studied the age of marriage as indicated by tombstones from the Roman Empire using modern demographic methods, and concluded that men and women married later than traditionally believed. They believe that men, previously thought to marry around 20, wed for the first time in their late twenties; and women, previously thought to marry around the time of menarche, married only late in their teens. The traditional view had been that men wed in their late teens or early twenties and women from 12 to 15.

Lelis, Percy and Verstraete (henceforth ‘LPV’) set out to refute the demographers’ view in this book, and defend the traditional belief.

This is actually the latest round in a dispute dating over a century. Harkness (1896) already argued from inscriptions for late marriage, but Hopkins (1964), for example, albeit himself using mainly epigraphic evidence, rejected Harkness’ interpretation of the data, remarking that Harkness was motivated by Victorian revulsion at the supposed abuse of young girls.

Indeed, more important than the narrow question of marital age are the broader conclusions drawn by authors concerning marriage and the family. Saller classes Rome, under a demographers’ typology, as the ‘Mediterranean type’, and infers that in the later periods and lower classes more reflected by the tombstones, the nuclear family replaced the extended family as the primary structure. LPV insist that the extended family prevailed throughout the Roman period, rejecting the demographic typology as inapplicable to a premodern society.

LPV’s monograph originated in a senior’s honours thesis, and it still reads like a thesis, albeit an outstanding one. The only unfortunate aspect is that the authors’ expressed aim to make it accessible for general readers is neglected. The reader must cope with untranslated and often unexplained legal terminology…

Suffice it here to say that, of the two main types of dowry, a dos profectitia could be recovered by the donor in case of the wife’s death as long as the donor was an agnatic ascendant of the bride. In the case of a dos adventitia, the wife could recover the dowry upon divorce or widowhood by the actio rei uxoriae, which might, however, be reduced in case of her misbehavior or justified expenses on the part of the husband (p. 42)

as well as the mysteries of demographic mathematics:

The relative chances of survival of parents and offspring can be calculated from the same Coale-Demeny Level 3 West-female life-tables that Saller used for his computer model. Realizing that it is not (e0 = 25) but (eaverage fatherhood = x) that is the issue, the following percentages can be calculated… (p. 85)

But the reader who perseveres is doubly rewarded. First, he will find in the appendices a detailed database drawn from written sources, listing far more marriages than were previously known, with biographical circumstances which are important for assessing the data. This admirable compilation, which will be useful for future researchers, could easily have been a separate publication. Secondly, in the body of the text, he will read a diachronic survey drawing on a wide range of ancient sources, which not only backs early marital age, but explains its logic in the overall structure of Roman demography and culture.

Hopkins had already briefly stated the essential points: The high mortality rates of a pre-modern society necessitated early marriage of females and high fertility; and the economic conditions of an agricultural society encouraged an extended family structure. Marriage was not expected to culminate a romantic relationship, but to perpetuate the survival and property of the clan.

LPV explain in detail how these factors unfolded in Rome. Perhaps the strongest aspect of their survey is the thorough presentation of the logic and consequences of Roman law, in particular the patria potestas which was the keystone of the extended family structure-and which, they stress, remained in force throughout the imperial period-and Augustus’ marital reforms. The chapters on the Republic, however, draw on Plautus and Livy as well, and there are several references in subsequent chapters to Pliny’s letters and the imperial historians. The authors allow important concessions signifying a drift toward greater importance for the nuclear family: Marriage sine manu and easy divorce were introduced in the Late Republic, and the lower classes under the Empire were subject to different economic constraints. But the nuclear family could not replace the extended family in a pre-industrial age. And the only group that did indulge extensively in delayed marriage-the old senatorial families during the Empire-became extinct.

The argumentation, as in any fine thesis, is generally reasonable and convincing. Not surprisingly, in view of the controversy, there are a few tendentious exceptions. For example, in spite of Augustus’ traditionalism, it is hardly convincing to present the tyrannical political manipulations of emperors as a typical exercise of patria potestas. Surely any monarchs, especially when their regime is lacking in an established principle of succession, would readily find whatever legal pretexts they required.

As might be expected in a thesis, the authors are always respectful and sometimes too generous towards their opponents. They justify their use of literary as well as epigraphic material, and its speculative assessment, by pointing out that the available material evidence cannot satisfy the requirements of scientific demography, and that the assessment of the tombstones too involves problems and relies on speculation (e.g., how to deal with inscriptions showing the duration of marriage without specifying whether it was the first marriage). Yet still they apologetically accept the designation of their own assessment as ‘impressionistic’.

A glance at one of the major arguments shows little difference between LPV and their opponents in this regard. Saller (1987) compared the frequency of men’s tombstone dedications by parents and by wives. Wives were more frequent for older men, but rare for men between 15 and 19. He concluded that these young men were not married, that wives replaced parents as commemmorators for married men. LPV, however, argue that older men were commemmorated by their wives only because the men’s fathers predeceased them. Analogously, if women dying in their early teens were commemmorated by their parents, Saller inferred that they were not married, but LPV postulate that they had not yet produced surviving offspring and so were still regarded more by their parents than by their husband’s family.

Incidentally, it is surprising that LPV do not object to the inclusion of freedmen’s inscriptions in the sample on which this argumentation is based. A freedman had no paterfamilias. Although his independence was restricted by certain obligations to his former master, he represented the start of a new citizen lineage. His natural father, who, if not dead, might still be enslaved, would not be a likely commemmorator.

If Saller’s explanation seems more ‘natural’ to us, it is because our own society has traditionally been structured on the nuclear family. Both explanations are logically possible; both are unproven; in short, both are ‘impressionistic’. The difference is precisely that Saller’s impression seems to be based on unexamined prejudice- e.g.,

Since in older age brackets…wives…were preferred as commemorators…the complete absence of wife commemmorators for this group surely means that teenage marriages were generally rare for men. (1987, p. 25; my emphasis)

whereas LPV’s conjectures conform with the broader patterns elaborated in their diachronic survey.

As alreadly mentioned, LPV do concede a drift toward a partially enhanced role for the nuclear family precisely in the periods and classes where Saller and others claim to observe it. Some future researcher might be able to construct a reconciliation here. But it would have to be rooted in the kind of broadly based understanding of Roman culture exemplified by LPV’s monograph, and not in the modern presuppositions which seem to have motivated their opponents.

LPV’s use of legal and literary sources to fill out a picture not attested by epigraphy alone does not need any apology. It is rather one of this book’s major strengths. Indeed it should have been taken further. Only the early Republican chapter, with its extensive consultation of Plautus and Livy, really exploits the literary sources satisfactorily. Pliny could be mined more deeply. For example, Letter I, 14, even while attesting the normalcy of arranged marriages, shows an intriguing tinge of hesitancy at placing financial considerations alongside of the character and good looks of the proposed groom. An informed and well reasoned interpretation (a scholarly ‘impression’) of an incident in Petronius which describes the mock wedding and deflowering of a young girl could tell us more about Roman attitudes on this prickly issue. The recurrence in late ancient novels of those far-fetched comedy plots designed to reconcile romantic love with extended-family requirements could be studied to determine to what extent they reflect similar social conditions. Probably also the satiric and the elegiac poets could provide relevant material.

The nuclear family was a Victorian value. It cannot offer the economic security afforded by an extended family, by equal access to careers, or by a welfare state. The persistent role of extended family in immigrant groups throughout the industrial age and in the many households today burdened by the return of underemployed adult offspring shows that the nuclear ideal did not serve the needs of the working poor. It rather served the need of employers for an amenable labour market. Today women’s access to career opportunities, the collapse of real wage levels for menial jobs, and the excessive working hours now required of professional or managerial jobs are already making the ideal of the nuclear family history. It is time to let the Romans too occupy their own place in history.


Harkness, A.G. “Age at Marriage and at Death in the Roman Empire”, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association (1896) 35-72

Hopkins, M.K. “The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage”, Population Studies 18 (1964-65) 309-327

Saller, Richard P. “Men’s Age at Marriage and its Consequences in the Roman Family”, Classical Philology 82 (1987) 21-34


Lucian’s Triumphant cinaedus and Rogue Lovers by James Jope

“Lucian’s Triumphant cinaedus and Rogue Lovers”, Helios 36, 1 (2009) 55-65: This paper examines two neglected texts of Lucian which illustrate his relevance for our understanding of ancient social values relating to sex, and the relevance of ancient sexual conventions for interpreting his own work. In Dialogues of the Dead 19 (numbered as in the Loeb edition), Lucian, following Cynic values, reveals a more tolerant attitude towards pathic sexuality than most sources, by eliciting unconventional admiration for a cinaedus who outwits his legacy hunters. And a study of Alexander the False Prophet 5 in view of conventional Greek expectations regarding pederasty casts new light on the interpretation of that controversial work.

Caution: Numbers in square brackets refer to endnotes. Please do not click these numbers; the links are faulty! To read endnotes, please scroll down to the end of the document.

Many of our sources regarding ancient sexuality—e.g., Plato the philosophical reformer, Cicero the politician, or Juvenal the reactionary satirist—could adopt distinctly moralistic stances. Not everybody held the values they preached, and it would be naive to assume, for example, that Greeks would never countenance using slaves sexually as the Romans did, or tolerate older men liking a passive sexual role. Little wonder that some historians of sexuality turn from literature to art for evidence of attitudes beyond those of the literate elite. But the cliché that all written texts were composed by and for elite males insensitive to the rest of society acknowledges neither the sophistication of that elite nor the diversity of the textual corpus. Lucian is a promising source for balancing the information of the moralists with a more transparent reflection of sexual values in a social context; and it should not be surprising if those values are particularly unconventional when he draws his inspiration from the Cynic school. In turn, a more nuanced understanding of ancient sexuality can cast new light on the interpretation of those texts whose full implications were previously either unnoticed or deliberately ignored. In this paper, I examine two neglected texts of Lucian that illustrate his relevance for recovering ancient social values relating to sex, and the relevance of ancient sexual conventions for interpreting his own work: Dialogues of the Dead 19 and Alexander the False Prophet 5.[1]
The Triumphant Cinaedus
Scholars mining Lucian for evidence on ancient sexuality have been drawn especially to Dialogues of the Courtesans 5 for its treatment of female homosexuality, which is exceptional in ancient Greek literature. Yet in spite of detailed discussions of its ancient sources and modern philosophical affinities, the question whether or not it is sympathetic toward these women has proven elusive.[2] This is not surprising, because throughout the Dialogues of the Courtesans, Lucian toys with ambivalence, presenting two views but seldom if ever taking sides. His treatment of a girl prostituted by her mother shows equally sensitivity to the girl’s loss of innocence and understanding of the mother’s economic dilemma. A philosopher is accused of corrupting his student, but his accuser is a jealous courtesan working toward the same goal. The conflict is amusing, but the authorial bias is elusive. The humor in the Dialogues of the Dead, set in Hades, is more straightforward. The dialogues are Menippean and are usually controlled by a single protagonist who worries clueless deviants from Cynic values.[3] Because this difference applies throughout the two respective dialogue series, we may expect Lucian’s sympathy to show more clearly in the Dialogues of the Dead.[4]
The Dialogues in places target and consistently satirize legacy hunters. As we might expect from Lucian, there are a few amusing momentary reversals of sympathy, as for example, in Dial. Mort. 22, a man who was killed by his son for his fortune is told it was his own fault for being so stingy with the boy. But these are exceptions, not systematic ambivalence. The context of the nineteenth dialogue in particular leads to the expectation that it will target the gold-diggers, as it is one of a series of dialogues showing their ironic reversals and congratulating old men who could fool them.
A recurring theme describes gold-diggers as rival ‘lovers’ (erastai) of their aged victims. Often this seems to be but a metaphor for extravagant generosity and flattery; but Lucian elsewhere suggests that sexual favors were not uncommon.[5] In Dial. Mort. 19, for example, Lucian teases the reader by suggesting ever more explicitly that the favors are sexual and the old man is a cinaedus. Yet the dialogue still directs sympathy toward the old man and antipathy toward the legacy hunters.
Pathic older men, i.e., those who enjoyed a passive sexual role even long after reaching adult age, were stereotyped in antiquity as cinaedi. It was a negative stereotype. A cinaedus was assumed to be effeminate and deficient in the capabilities of control expected of adult men. Just as ‘real men’ were expected to control their own passions as well as their subordinates (women, slaves, boys), it was assumed that if an adult male yielded control to others, he was unable to exercise it over himself. So he was thought to be dissolute, even prone to adultery. And as Richlin (1993) shows, these men were subjected to social and legal harassment.
Scholars who would assimilate cinaedi to modern homosexuals and the prejudice against them to homophobia tend to downplay their involvement with women.[6] But Craig Williams (1991, 261, note 18, 355, note 319) refuses to speak of ‘homophobia’ in the ancient world because, following a rigid theory of social construction of sex and gender, he does not believe there were ‘homosexuals’ at that time. He (1991, 206 ff.) and Hubbard (2003, 7) cite considerable evidence of cinaedic involvement with women.
One need not obscure the differences between the ancient and modern stereotypes to see both, in important respects, as homophobic. In surveys extending beyond the classical period, such as Crompton’s (2003), it is clear that regardless of paradigmatic shifts in legal and cultural attitudes, the phobia of homosexuals in the modern West has directly descended from the phobia of the cinaedus. The modern phobia relates to sexual acts and orientation, while the Greek phobia was essentially ageist. However, both involve social harassment of men whose sexual proclivities with other men transgress the reigning sexual paradigm and deviate from scripts of male dominance. And both could be challenged by persons with a broader outlook based on, e.g., the modern value of the right to privacy, or the Cynic value of independence. Lucian would satirize any such phobia.
Richlin (1993, 549), analyzing Roman homophobic literary sources, observes that cinaedic relations with women were always “set up as a surprise.” Lucian, in the nineteenth dialogue of the Dialogues of the Dead, emphasizes the cinaedus Polystratus’s ‘normal’ relations with women and boys to “set up” his pathic affair as the surprise; this old man, though pathic, is very independent and always in control.
Simylus meets his friend Polystratus in the Underworld. Polystratus can boast that he lived to the age of 98, “old, frail and childless,” but still living the life of Riley—plenty of pretty boys, women, and wine. Simylus is puzzled, because the Polystratus he knew was thrifty. “But all this was given to me”, says Polystratus. “What, were you a tyrant?” “No. I had many lovers [erastai].” “What, at your age, and with only four teeth?” Polystratus’s age and unattractiveness are comically emphasized, and he admits that it was his legacy they were after. Yet he persists with the ‘romance’ theme: the men vied for his attention, he played the role of the beloved holding out behind a locked door, etc. He led them all on, but secretly wrote a surprising will.
Simylus conjectures that Polystratus’s chosen heir was a relative. But Polystratus is appalled by that idea: “Heavens no! It was a young man from Phrygia I’d just bought.” Notice that this is not another ‘boy’ (pais), like those offered by his ‘lovers,’ but a young man (meirakion). Age is just as important a factor in this dialogue as money. Here we might expect Simylus to ask about the Phrygian’s character, or how he won Polystratus’s favor, but instead, Simylus asks his age. Told he was 20, Simylus immediately infers: “Oh. Now I understand what kind of favors he did for you.” The significance of this exchange may elude a modern reader. After all, why ask the precise age of the young man? And what sudden revelation does the answer convey? The answers become clear only in view of the ageist conventions of Greek love.
According to these conventions, an erōmenos (the loved one) was generally expected to be a teenager. Twenty marked the beginning of full adulthood. In Athens, the ephebe stage ended at this age, while in imperial Rome young men celebrated the first shaving of their beard, the depositio barbae, which, according to Richlin (1993, 547), also signaled that they “should no longer attract sexual attention from males.” It is true that some Greeks took exception to drawing a rigid line at this age. Hubbard (2003, 6) cites evidence that philosophers especially tended to expand the ‘age of eligibility,’ which the early Stoics extended to 28. They, however, were interested in character and intellectual maturity. Strato’s homoerotic poetry and the Lucianic Erotes, both dating to the Roman imperial period of Greece, attest that boys were conventionally thought to lose their physical attractiveness with the appearance of the beard. In fact, the Erotes refers specifically to age 20.[7] These Greek sources contemporary with Lucian demonstrate that Simylus’s inference, which can only be based on conventional expectations familiar to Lucian’s readers, cannot be that the new slave became Polystratus’s erōmenos; after all, Polystratus had already said he had plenty of toy boys. So what was this special favor that the new slave could offer? Another poem by Strato points to the obvious answer: Anth. Pal. 12.4. Strato there praises boys of each age from 12 to 20, but the last age draws a special comment. 
In the Greek, Apameibomenos is a Homeric formula for ‘answering back,’ and ouketi paizei ("he's not playing anymore" ) is a warning, as it were echoing ouketi pais: “Watch out . . . this one will answer you back.” That is, the erōmenos is a man now, he will want an active role. Hine’s (2001, 6) translation preserves the coyness of the original: “Child’s play no more but tit-for-tat.” Below I offer a free translation that makes the implications clearer:
For me, a boy is ripe at twelve,
Though thirteen is much nicer.
At fourteen, cherry is sweeter still
And five times three is spicier.
Sixteen-year-olds are fit for gods,
The next year just for Jupiter.
But after that the kid will say
“It’s your turn now; roll over.”[8]
At this point, Simylus has, so to speak, ‘outed’ Polystratus. The romance motif was no joke after all. Although it was never suggested that the legacy hunters actually made love to Polystratus, he did show his passive, effeminate bent by the delight he took in being courted and leading them on. The Phrygian slave had nothing to offer other than a young adult body, a young man’s body.
Lucian’s sketch contrasts in many ways with Juvenal’s treatment of a similar situation in his Satire 9. Perhaps the most striking difference is that while Juvenal, through crass physical details, expresses his disgust with the deviants—e.g., Naevolus, the penetrator, complains of colliding with “yesterday’s dinner” (9.44)—Lucian uses meaningful hints that are tactfully expressed and so are all the more amusing. For example, Polystratus says that the Phrygian deserved to inherit, even though he was a barbarian and an olethros (pest). This affectionately negative expression suggests something like the tension of a romantic, or at least personal, relationship. It would be difficult to back Polystratus’s choice more concretely, especially given his own extreme age. The Stoics may have indulged ‘boys’ up to age 28. But 98? Polystratus’s age is a comical exaggeration debunking the ageism of Greek sexual conventions.
Of course, Polystratus does not expect Simylus to admire his relationship. He strikes in fact a mildly defensive tone: “Yes, but [plēn alla] he was much more deserving than they.” But Simylus is readily won over. Polystratus points out, with irony, that the young fellow is now prestigious in the city and assiduously courted, and Simylus replies: “That’s fine with me; I don’t care if they make him commander-in-chief, as long as those legacy hunters don’t inherit.” Thus, although moralists were appalled at cinaedi and machos scoffed at them, Lucian regarded their vice as trivial in comparison to the baseness of legacy hunters. Why?
The reason is that the Dialogues of the Dead is a distinctly Cynic work. At Dial. Mort. 21, two dead Cynics, Crates and Diogenes, list their “inheritance,” namely the individualistic values against which they judge their dialogue partners throughout this series: wisdom, independence, truth, speaking out (parrhēsia), and freedom. Now, one might quibble over Polystratus’s wisdom, but the other traits of the Cynic are all manifest in his character in the text. In particular, by initiating his own, however unconventional, choice of heir, Polystratus displays the Cynic virtue of independence that the legacy hunters so conspicuously lack, and his own frankness (parrhēsia) contrasts with their hypocrisy.
In Dial. Mort. 15 and 16, the god Pluto himself speaks for the Cynics. Although he condemns the gold-diggers’ greed, he regards hypocrisy as their worst vice. Pluto instructs Hermes to deliberately allow Thucritus, a childless old man, to enjoy longevity while he drags down to Hades every one of the young legacy hunters in pursuit of his fortune. Terpsion is the first to arrive, and he argues with Pluto over the fairness of legacy hunting; but his position collapses when, delighted to learn that the same fate awaits all of his rivals, he abruptly changes sides. Interestingly, his discredited argument turns on age: the old should get out of the way and give the young a chance to enjoy the wealth. This casts more light on Lucian’s flouting of ageist norms in 19. For Lucian in his Cynic mode, Terpsion’s ageism is but a hypocritical mask for greed.
Another classical norm that Lucian flouts in 19 is the presumptive correspondence between physical beauty and moral worth.[9] The emphasis on Polystratus’s ugliness makes his erotic involvements ridiculous, but does not alter the moral judgment.
Lucian does not present Polystratus’s relationship with his slave as an ethical ideal. The coy revelation of Polystratus’s passivity by means of the slave’s age simultaneously respects and teases the conventional sensitivity of the topic; and Polystratus himself, though frank, is mildly defensive. Perhaps by the second century the Roman attitude that the slave was only doing his job had gained some ground in Greece. However, this dialogue is not about the slave, but about Polystratus; and in his case the Cynic values are especially relevant.
Cynics did not disapprove of a man having sex with boys, but they differed in their views on whether one should accept the passive role. Hubbard (2003, 264) cites some Cynics who cautioned boys against risking their manhood but he also cites the strikingly unconventional position of Bion of Borysthenes that it is better to offer one’s prime than to pluck others’. These Cynics’ views were based largely on the value that Cynics placed on independence. Bion’s Cynic youth, like Alcibiades, presumably had sufficient self-confidence to grant his favors without endangering his own masculinity or independence. The same applies to Polystratus. His economic success and his capers with women and boys, not to mention his manipulation of the gold-diggers, establish his independence, and it is difficult to imagine how passive indulgence in old age with a slave would diminish it—unless, of course, it affected his choice of an heir. But that line of criticism, of which I find no trace in Lucian’s text, would apply only if Polystratus were induced to choose the slave over another, more deserving candidate; and the situation presupposed in the dialogue is that no such candidate was available. The old man is admired not for his sexual predilection, but for outsmarting his suitors; indeed, part of the joke on them is that they are foiled by a cinaedus. Nevertheless, his predilection is not denigrated; rather, it is simply an amusing surprise in the comical defeat of the legacy hunters, as author, interlocutor, and reader (or the audience, if these dialogues were composed for public readings) cheer the triumphant cinaedus.
The Rogue Lovers
My second text, chapter 5 of Lucian’s Alexander the False Prophet, illustrates how important clues for literary interpretation can be missed when sexual references are glossed over. The text describes Alexander’s adolescent occupation as a prostitute and how it led to his apprenticeship as a charlatan. As recently as 1997, Ulrich Victor (1997, 132) could write a detailed commentary discussing at length the drugs and rituals therein, with nary a word on the erotic component. C. P. Jones (1986, 135) asks only whether Alexander was really a prostitute, since a charge of prostitution was too common to take seriously. But there is much more here.
Alexander’s prostitution is mentioned primarily to provide the occasion for introducing into the text his first teacher. This teacher, we are told, was a talented fraud, a disciple of Apollonius of Tyana. He found Alexander handsome and also eager to help in his work, since the boy loved him for his knavery (kakia), much as the teacher loved the boy’s beauty. So, the teacher taught him all of his tricks—particularly pharmaceutical knowledge and showmanship (tragōidia)—and kept him on as his assistant and successor.
The relationship between Alexander and his teacher, though comical, is grounded in reality. Philosophical apprenticeship was only one of a spectrum of possible pederastic educational relationships—good, bad, and neutral—which, at least among the aristocrats of the Archaic period, also involved athletics and fighting. Hubbard (2001, 140-1), citing Marrou 1956 and the evidence of iconography, notes that pederastic training is attested not just in athletics but also in technical disciplines like medicine and music. The young Marcus Aurelius apparently developed a love for his rhetoric teacher Fronto greater than his love for his philosophy teacher.[10] John R. Clarke (2007, 52) suggests that even Roman tradesmen’s apprenticeships could involve erotic relationships. Pederasty, therefore, could provide, in the context of the ageist model of bisexuality prevalent in ancient Greece, alternative access to training or advancement for some boys lacking wealth or family connections, although the elite born with wealth would disdain the mercenary motives of others striving to acquire it. Alexander’s case, however, is extraordinary, for an ancient reader would recognize it as an exact ethical inversion of philosophical pederasty. In the lofty Platonic tradition, the philosopher was supposed to be attracted to the boy’s beauty, while the youth would respond in kind through love of the older man’s wisdom and virtue and learn philosophy from him. In Alexander’s travesty, the boy admires the older man’s guile and learns his con game.
This parody of Platonic love is an important part of the text’s narrative. For a boy prostitute, like Alexander, it must have been the jackpot to have secured such a relationship. Young Alexander’s eagerness suggests that he was the aggressor, already showing his assertive, amoral character and its success. The ethical inversion also illustrates the statement in chapter 1 that this second Alexander excelled in vice (kakia), just as Alexander the Great had excelled in virtue. Indeed, this is but one of a series of reversals. In chapter 8, Alexander and his partner are said to excel as confidence men, since they exploit the very same fears and desires from which Epicurus sought to free mankind. In 16, the arrangement enabling a queue of people to file through a tent, used by the first Alexander to accommodate his well-wishers when he was ill, is used by the second for a superstitious exhibition. Finally, the inversion provides a link with Apollonius of Tyana, showing, as the narrator himself states, what sort of background and associates the teacher has to offer.
Most scholars believe that the impassioned Epicurean narrator of this work, who betrays his own lack of philosophical peace of mind (ataraxia) when he rudely bites Alexander, cannot represent Lucian. However that may be, Lucian names himself as the narrator (55), and provides specific datable references suited to confirm his identity to historians as well as his own readers.[11] Lucian also gives specific information about Alexander himself, so much so that the historical data in this work make it read like a documentary.
In chapter 5, however, Lucian obstinately avoids naming the teacher. The man is introduced as erastēs tis (a certain lover), then referred to as houtos (he), autos (himself), and finally autos ekeinos (this same man) although the narrator knows that he was a physician from Tyana and a follower of Apollonius. Why conceal the teacher’s identity? Perhaps not only the prostitution, but the entire apprenticeship story, followed so conveniently by the death of the teacher at the moment Alexander matures and is ready to commence his own career, is fictitiously elaborated from more meager information in order to develop Alexander’s character and interests.[12]
As I have demonstrated in this paper, certain texts of Lucian offer new insights into the sexual history of Greece during the Roman Empire. The Dialogues of the Dead 19, when examined in the context of ancient sexual conventions and stereotypes, especially as seen in the contemporary Strato and the Lucianic Erotes, and in the context of a Cynic background, reveals a more sophisticated point of view that challenges those very stereotypes. Alexander the False Prophet is a controversial work—historians are unsure whether it can provide documentary evidence or is largely fictional—and its fifth chapter, studied here, cannot in itself resolve this issue. However, we have seen that this chapter does offer important information towards its solution. Setting aside modern sensitivities, and acknowledging the pederastic content, was necessary, but not sufficient, for arriving at this insight. To grasp the implications of the comic inversion of philosophical pederasty in this treatise, we had to interpret it in the light of relevant ancient social models. Only in this way could we trace how the text complements the narrator’s argument, so neatly that this chapter, at any rate, seems likely to be fictional. These findings, coupled with our recovery of the satirical strategy in the Dialogues of the Courtesans, show the desirability of an integrated approach to sexual history and literary studies.[13]
Works Cited
Butrica, James L. 2005. “Some Myths and Anomalies in the Study of Roman Sexuality.” In Verstraete and Provencal 2005, 209-70.
Clarke, John R. 2007. Roman Life: 100 BC to AD 200. New York.
Crompton, Louis. 2003. Homosexuality and Civilization. Cambridge, MA.
Haley, Shelley P. 2002. “Lucian’s ‘Leaina and Clonarium.’” In Nancy Rabinowitz and Lisa Auanger, eds., Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. Austin. 286-303.
Harmon, A. M. 1913-1967. Lucian. 8 volumes. Loeb Classical Library, 14, 54, 130, 162, 302, 430, 431, 432. Cambridge, MA.
Hine, Daryl. 2001. Puerilities: Erotic Epigrams of the Greek Anthology. Princeton.
Hubbard, Thomas K. 2003. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. Berkeley and London.
———. 2005. “Pindar’s Tenth Olympian and Athlete-Trainer Pederasty.” In Verstraete and Provencal 2005, 137-72.
Jones, C. P. 1986. Culture and Society in Lucian. Cambridge, MA.
Jope, James. 2005. “Translating Strato: The Role of Translations in the Study of Ancient Sexuality and the Understanding of Classical Erotica.” Mouseion Series 3, volume 5: 47-57.
Marrou, H.-I. 1956. A History of Education in Antiquity. English translation by George Lamb. New York. (Originally published as Histoire de l’éducation dans l’antiquité. 2. éd. rev. et augm. [Paris 1950])
Richlin, Amy. 1993. “Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 34: 523-73.
———. 2007. Marcus Aurelius in Love. Chicago.
Relihan, Joel C. 1987. “Vainglorious Menippus in the Dialogues of the Dead.” ICS 12: 185-206.
Verstraete, Beert C., and Vernon Provencal, eds. 2005. Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West. Special issue of the Journal of Homosexuality 49.3/4.
Victor, Ulrich. 1997. Lukian von Samosata: Alexandros oder der Lügenprophet. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 132. Leiden.
Williams, Craig A. 1991. Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. New York.

[1]I refer to the Greek text of the Loeb editions (Harmon 1913-1967). Translations are my own, unless otherwise stated, and are free.
[2]Haley (2002), for example, admits the possibility of various interpretations and seems to struggle to accommodate their different implications.
[3]Relihan (1987) argues that Menippus is satirized as well as his interlocutors, because he was not regarded as a true Cynic. The standard by which he is measured, however, is still Cynic.
[4]For the same reason, we may be confident that the point of view examined here is Lucian’s own, rather than simply that of his sources. Both the cultivated ambivalence of the CourtesansDialogues of the Dead are characteristic of other Lucianic works as well. and the consistently Cynic attitude of the
[5]Gold-diggers are described as lovers of old “men and women” in 16, while the quack rhetorician of A Professor of Public Speaking shamelessly details his embraces of his own benefactor (24).
[6]Even they do not, as a rule, categorically deny the possibility of such relations. An exception is Butrica 2005, 221-3, who attempts to demonstrate that all alleged references to cinaedi having oral sex with women are invalid. Butrica appears to consider these men exclusively homosexual. But the evidence cited for sex with women is not exclusively oral, and oral sex is not specifically relevant to Lucian’s satire.
[7]Lucian, Erotes 26.1ff. The author is commonly cited as ‘Pseudo-Lucian,’ but I argue in a forthcoming publication for the authenticity of this work.
[8]This poem, incidentally, illustrates the difficulty of writing an effective erotic translation without distorting the meaning of an ancient poem—a problem that I have discussed in connection with Strato (Jope 2005). Hine’s translation does preserve the coyness of the original, but at the cost of explaining the meaning. A living poet, Dennis Kelly (2008 personal communication), sent me the following adaptation: Twelve is okay—Thirteen even better. Fourteen’s a rosebud—Fifteen full-blown rose. Sixteen in god we trust—Seventeen ask Zeus. Older ones smirk—Pay them to not tell. Kelly may have been using Hine’s translation, where he understood “tit-for-tat” to refer not to sexual reciprocation, but to financial compensation.
[9]Lucian the Cynic debunks this correspondence, perhaps the silliest conceit of Platonic love, repeatedly in his writings.
[10]I have not seen Richlin’s (2007) edition of Marcus’s correspondence with Fronto.
[11]E.g., his intimacy with Celsus (61) and his involvement of the consul Aritus (57).
[12]Andreas Bendlin (2008 personal communication) suggests that it may have been a topos.
[13]I am indebted to Andreas Bendlin and to A. P. Booth and Beert Verstraete, and especially to the referee for Helios, for helpful comments on this paper.